ANKARA (Reuters) - Leftist student Erdal Eren was just 17 when Turkey’s military hanged him after seizing power in a 1980 coup.
His cousin Gokhan is now among thousands calling the now silver-haired, 94-year-old coup leader General Kenan Evren to account in a trial this week which many Turks hope will help heal wounds from a history of military takeovers.
The days of military intervention are long gone in Turkey. Reforms which Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has pushed through during his decade in power, as part of a bid for EU membership, have sharply reined in the power of NATO’s second biggest army.
But Evren’s trial adds a poignant twist to the sprawling prosecution of hundreds of people being tried for alleged coup plots against Erdogan’s government and will shed fresh light on a time of brutal repression 30 years ago.
“We hanged Erdal...do you think you’re going to get out of here?” Gokhan quoted one jailer as saying at the time. In the indictment, he describes being tortured for 80 days at a security complex in Istanbul where he was held after the coup.
Months earlier at 3:59 am on September 12, 1980, while most Turks slept, the national anthem blared out on state radio, followed by a presenter reading Evren’s bombshell statement.
“Glorious Turkish nation, the country which the great Ataturk entrusted to us is facing treacherous attacks ... to its existence, regime and independence,” the presenter began.
“In this atmosphere the Turkish Armed Forces have seized complete control of the country’s administration ... with the aim of protecting national unity and preventing a probable civil war.”
In the ensuing repression, 50 people were executed, half a million arrested, many of them tortured. Hundreds died in jail and many more disappeared. It was the third coup in 20 years.
Evren’s trial will be watched closely by hundreds of military, including top serving and retired commanders, and civilians being tried now as members of the alleged “Ergenekon” and “Sledgehammer” coup conspiracies against current Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
“We are passing from a period where coups were regarded as legitimate to one where putschists are being tried. This case is important in terms of the stability of Turkey’s democracy,” said political commentator Oral Calislar, jailed for four years after the 1980 coup.
The army toppled four governments in the second half of the 20th century. A 1960 coup involved wholesale arrests and executions, including that of the prime minister. The last intervention was in 1997 when the country’s first Islamist-led government was induced by pressure behind the scenes to step down in what became known as the ‘post-modern coup’.
Today’s Turkey is indeed vastly different. Increasingly prosperous and politically stable, half the 75 million population were not born when the 1980 coup took place.
But the country remains haunted by those traumatic times.
“It is not possible to bring back those who died and we are not after revenge, but this wound has been bleeding for 30 years. We are saying let us not forget the past,” said Ilyas Danyeli, a lawyer for the families of Eren and five other young men executed or tortured to death after the coup.
Despite a plea of innocence, Eren was executed on charges of killing a soldier during political violence ahead of the coup. Danyeli said he was a victim of summary justice by a biased military court.
“The courts were illegitimate and became the most important instrument of the repression, intimidation and tyranny of Kenan Evren’s junta,” he said.
On Wednesday, an Ankara court begins hearing the case against Evren and the other surviving architect of that military takeover, former air force commander Tahsin Sahinkaya, 87.
With Evren now frail, it is unclear whether he would ever get to serve a life sentence for leading the coup.
President for nine years after the coup, he has spent much of his retirement enjoying his painting hobby at a resort on the Mediterranean. An exhibition of his paintings of semi-naked women in Turkish baths he held in 1997 shocked Islamists.
Evren says he does not regret the coup, arguing it restored order after years of chaos in which 5,000 people died in violence between far-left and far-right factions.
“Should we feed them in prison for years instead of hanging them?” Evren said in a speech in 1984, a year after the army handed back rule to an elected civilian government.
Authorities were concerned both about communist activities and what they saw as a rising threat from Islamists. Many Turks suspect the American Central Intelligence Agency fomented the strife that made its frontline, Cold War ally ripe for a coup.
Evren is not going down without a fight. In a 160-page red booklet he sets out his defense, denouncing the court as not having the authority to try him and saying that because the coup was successful it does not constitute a crime.
“Carrying out a coup is not a crime. The law only views a (coup) attempt as a crime,” he said in his defense, arguing that because the 1982 constitution written under his rule is still in force he was one of the founders of the current system.
“If you try me you are carrying out a revolution yourself.”
Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag rejects that defense.
“This is like saying attempted murder is punished but actual murder is not,” Bozdag told reporters in parliament last month.
The military’s inclusion in the constitution of an article, now repealed, providing legal protection for those who carried out the coup showed they considered it a crime, Bozdag said.
Some 1,000 complaints have been filed against the putschists in a trial which was facilitated by reforms, approved in a 2010 referendum, of the constitution that was drafted when Evren was in power.
Among those seeking to be co-plaintiffs are the main opposition Republican People’s Party. Its leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said his party was shut down, its leaders were thrown in jail and assets were seized.
But while many see the current coup plot trials as part of Turkey’s democratization, government critics argue they have been used to stifle dissent in Turkey.
Gokhan Eren, now a 63-year-old working in the construction sector, believes the coup sprang from NATO anti-communist operations. Beyond personal justice for Erdal he is skeptical about the trial.
Erdogan’s secularist opponents argue his ruling AK Party has a secret Islamist agenda. The government denies this, although critics point to a recent education reform which they say is boosting Islamic education.
It is not clear whether Evren will be in court in person. The prosecutor’s office has said it could hear the testimonies of Evren and Sahinkaya in their homes due to their ill health.
Evren recently underwent intestinal surgery and is receiving hospital treatment. Health reports on the generals were sent to medical authorities to decide whether they are fit to attend.
If not, their defense could be heard through video link-up. It would be a stark contrast to the grainy black-and-white footage from September 12, 1980 when Evren addressed the nation in military uniform.
Writing by Daren Butler